|Our Selective Curiosity on Sex Scandals
By Vincent Carroll
October 10, 2010
Is the Baptist ministry prone to sexual abuse against minors? Just wondering.
After all, four young men have accused Baptist megachurch leader Bishop Eddie Long in suburban Atlanta of luring them into sex when they were teens, and it's hardly the first time a well-known Baptist preacher has been linked to such scandal. Yet the case has been framed in news accounts mostly as an example of possible hypocrisy: Prominent anti-gay pastor accused of having sex with male teens.
No one, meanwhile, is suggesting the Baptist ministry is a refuge for pedophiles, as is commonly said of the Catholic Church.
Is that because Baptist ministers are less likely than Catholic priests to have sex with minors? That may be the popular impression, but no one actually knows. Hard data on sexual abuse by ministers simply don't exist, any more than they do for scoutmasters, school teachers, guidance counselors, staff at juvenile detention facilities, and other professions dealing with youth.
"Sexual misconduct appears to be spread fairly evenly across the denominations, though I stress the word 'appears,' " maintains Philip Jenkins, Penn State professor of history and religious studies. "Astonishingly, Catholic priests are literally the only profession in the country for whom we have relatively good figures for the incidence of child abuse and molestation."
Jenkins wrote those words in 2003. I asked him recently if they remained true. "Definitely," he replied.
We do have a few clues, however, regarding possible abuse rates in other professions. For example, in a report titled "Sexual Victimization in Juvenile Facilities Reported by Youth" released earlier this year, a federal Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found an astonishing 10.3 percent of more than 26,000 youth held in state-operated and other large juvenile facilities complained of a "sexual incident" involving facility staff in the previous 12 months.
A few years ago, The Associated Press examined sexual abuse of students by public school teachers. Although reporters couldn't quantify total complaints, they did discover "more than 2,500 cases over five years in which educators were punished for actions from bizarre to sadistic." Perhaps more disturbing, "The AP investigation found efforts to stop individual offenders but, overall, a deeply entrenched resistance toward recognizing and fighting abuse . . . . In case after case the AP examined, accusations of inappropriate behavior were dismissed," while "deals and lack of information-sharing allow abusive teachers to jump state lines, even when one school does put a stop to the abuse."
In other words, school districts were engaging in the same sort of institutional treatment of offenders that characterized a number of Catholic dioceses in the 1960s, '70s and early '80s, and which did so much to damage the church's reputation.
In 2009, by contrast, a total of only six "credible" allegations were lodged against U.S. Catholic priests or deacons for sexual abuse of a minor occurring that year, according to statistics gathered by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. That's in a church with more than 41,000 priests and 17,000 deacons. Assuming the clergy will never be staffed entirely by saints — what profession is? — this figure may be about as low as it is likely to go for such a large organization.
Obviously, some victims of sexual abuse will come forward much later, but if recent experience is any guide, most future reports won't point a finger at today's priests, either. Nearly 400 allegations were actually logged in 2009, but the vast majority involved incidents dating back at least 25 years, with most occurring in the 1970s. That pattern matches what the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found in 2004 in a well-respected analysis, namely that "more abuse occurred in the 1970s than any other decade."
Reported incidents of abuse dropped rapidly afterward, particularly after the prosecutions of the notorious pedophile Father Gilbert Gauthe in Louisiana in 1985 and the former Rev. James Porter in 1993 in Massachusetts. It was during this period, as former New York Times religion reporter Peter Steinfels once explained, that most bishops revised how they handled accusations of sexual abuse, agreeing to "immediately suspend anyone reasonably suspected."
By 2002, the single biggest year of media coverage of priest sex abuse (triggered by first-rate reporting in the Boston Globe), "it is almost certain that church authorities [had] long since ceased to 'shuttle pedophile priests from parish to parish,' " Steinfels concluded. That fact was almost totally unappreciated when Steinfels wrote it in 2002, and it is rarely appreciated even today. What it means, however, is that as contemporary instances of abuse have been drying up, plaintiffs' attorneys have had to find ways to proceed with decades-old claims, including by persuading courts to approve theories like repression of memory or going to legislatures to retroactively suspend their statutes of limitations.
Partly as a result, some of the cases themselves have taken on an increasingly surreal quality. On July 13, for example, the archdiocese of Denver took the unusual step of issuing a press release announcing that the reputation of Monsignor William Higgins, who died more than 40 years ago, remained unblemished after a plaintiff known as "Jane Doe" "voluntarily dismissed all claims" she made against him a year before.
Her story had been riddled with inconsistencies and inventions involving everything from how the alleged incident had affected her self-esteem to whether she'd ever filed other allegations of sexual abuse and submitted to therapeutic hypnosis. It was also discovered that her lawyer, in what church attorneys told the court was witness tampering, sent an e-mail to Jane Doe's therapist indicating that "we need" her client's supposed recollection of the alleged abuse to occur "less than two years before we had to file in mid-May 2009" because of Colorado's statute of limitations.
Similarly fraudulent or highly dubious accusations are more common than is acknowledged in coverage of the church scandals — although they should not be surprising, given the monumental settlements various dioceses have paid out over the years.
The older the case, the more difficult it is to verify or disprove — which is why we have statutes of limitations in the first place. "Higgins was born in 1890 and died in 1967," the lead attorney involved in the case told me. "And so I find myself defending a case where both the alleged wrongful conduct and the priest's death occurred before I was even born."
Yet cases of such vintage are by no means unusual. Nearly a third of abuse complaints made nationally last year involved incidents at least 40 years old.
The cost and risk of defending cases in a hostile public environment can sometimes propel the church into settlement offers to accusers with seemingly little credibility. Denver offered a settlement to a woman who accused another deceased monsignor of sexual abuse in the 1970s even though her life history — including long-standing mental illness, serious drug problems and a childhood marred by parental neglect or worse — was not one to give confidence in her reliability.
Incredibly, she rejected the offer and chose to pursue a lawsuit. When church lawyers then identified numerous falsehoods or inconsistencies in her claims of repressed memory, she turned around and sued her original attorney.
It goes without saying that there have been far too many victims of sexual abuse by clergy, that some dioceses once handled predators in inexcusable fashion, and that the bishops responsible (mostly retired or deceased) were never held accountable.
But it is equally true that many people on both the political left and right, for very different reasons, have been perfectly willing to fuel the fiction that nothing has changed and that, moreover, the church was a uniquely culpable institution. And never mind if the evidence — or lack of it — tells a different story.
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